Wayne “The Train” Hancock loves country. Not the country those Stetson-wearing stockbrokers and soccer moms listen to. They think Faith Hill wears chaps on a regular basis and has some serious issues with twang. What the hell do they know about country? And not the pap that those flunkies in Nashville get their undies all messy for. Just because it’s got a lap-steel doesn’t mean it’s not pop. If Bill Monroe were still alive he’d lynch all those suits with one of his mandolin strings.
No, The Train likes his country hard, like Panhandle dirt. He likes it when the vocals could double for a coyote howling. He likes it when the lap-steel sounds like the wind whistling through an oilrig. And he likes it when the bass comes off like someone banging on a wash drum. That’s country music—basic, personal and dirty. No heavy coating. No session-player glitz. Just the real stuff like Bob Willis and Hank Sr.sed to play. And if you don’t agree with Hancock, well, he’ll probably tell you to go hell—or worse, Nashville.
“Far be it from me to judge my Nashville brothers, but that ain’t country music,” Hancock says, his Texas drawl smothering every word. “Those people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. They wouldn’t know good music if it bit them in the ass. Look at the stuff on the radio. That stuff is mocking country music. In Nashville, they would never even do real country music, and they sure as hell wouldn’t do this kind of music. They wouldn’t know how.”
Sad thing is, Hancock’s right. Tennessee’s country titans couldn’t even fathom how to make a Wayne “The Train” record. How could they? They’re the ones who think Willie Nelson is as relevant as an I Like Ike button. They’re the ones who cut Waylon Jennings off like a cancerous mole. How could they understand a stripped-down and twanged-out bonanza meant for the AM radio in some dusty pick-up truck? They all drive Mercedes.
It’s why Hancock and Nashville have had little interaction. Sure, at the beginning of his career, Hancock flirted with disaster, making a few demos for Elektra Records back in ’93. One session was enough to kick him off that habit. “They edited every damn second of my song,” he says. “And they wanted to add drums. It doesn’t sound right with drums. I argued them down to just a kick drum, but that still doesn’t sound right.”
After a few more scuffles, Elektra gladly parted ways with Hancock, branding him a hard-to-handle modern-day outlaw in the process. Soon after, Hancock’s name became a curse on Music Row. Even today, eight years later, Nashville still bristles at The Train, even going so far as to tell longtime friend Hank Williams III to stay away from Hancock. “They told him if he didn’t stop hanging out with me he wouldn’t do well in Nashville,” Hancock laughs. Hank III wouldn’t do it even if he wanted to: Hancock wrote half his debut album.
But living on the fringes of country hasn’t been a bad thing for Hancock. Over the years, he built up a following so loyal they’d never hit the highway without Wayne blaring out the stereo. His live shows—whether with his band or just by his lonesome—can go from blistering to just plain jaw-dropping. And every time he hits the stage, he converts another Trisha Yearwood fan to real country. Yeah, it’s not easy. Hancock is touring most of the year, generally ducking in the studio for only two or three days to bang out another album. It can be draining. He gets tired. He gets homesick. “But it’s like weight lifting,” he says. “If you stop, you lose your muscle tone. If I stop playing, I lose my fan base. And since I’m not doing it the Nashville way, I have to do it on my own. It’s a catch-22.”
That staunch independence has yielded some stunning songs, though. Hancock’s latest, A-Town Blues (Bloodshot), is crammed with tracks that would make Hank Sr. drool, lonesome interstate ballads torn between the urge to settle down and that craving for a stretch of open road. Tracks like “Man of the Road” and “Route 23” feel like they’ve been plucked from a simpler time, full of white walls and truck stops. The rest of the album comes off the same way. Sure, the themes are pretty standard: hard times, hard luck and hard drinking. And the sound, a mix of rockabilly, Texas swing and honky-tonk, is as familiar as your favorite T-shirt. But that all just makes Hancock’s records seem lived-in.
Of course, some are quick to disregard Hancock and his music as just a throwback, a retro-loving troubadour who couldn’t hack it in the modern world. Hancock says that’s just a load of crap.”I think people are jealous,” he says matter-of-factly. “They can’t do what I’m doing, so they have to put it down. People say that just because it’s got a Hawaiian steel guitar it’s retro, but all those guys on the radio have it, too. Retro guys dress the part and think it’s the ’50s. I’ve just taken a style that was abandoned in ’58 and brought it into the present. It’s not retro.”
But even Hancock isn’t impervious to all the chides and criticism from the country machine. He admits that he occasionally wonders what could have been. “Sometimes I wonder why it is that I can’t deal with these people, why I can’t turn the other way and think it’s OK,” he says, suddenly pensive. “But I can’t. It’s a blessing and a curse. I’ve seen all the people who’ve gone to Nashville and they all come back. And I know I’m no more talented than the others. I’m not going to save country music or save Nashville. That’s not going to happen. I have to play by my own rules. That’s the way it has to be.” u
Wayne “The Train” Hancock. The Zephyr Club, 301 S. West Temple, 355-CLUB, Monday Dec. 10, 9:30 p.m.